Why Cookbooks Still Matter

In this time of news so distressing that I have to ration my exposure, reading cookbooks is my escape valve. A project that will eat up my time, distract me from my worries and feed the people I love. Even occasionally feed them very well indeed. Cookbooks both transport and anchor me. They take me away and keep me home. To other lands. To others’ lives. Back in time. Into the future. Into other kitchens without leaving my own. A time-limited edible arts & crafts project using ingredients or techniques that I thought I’d mastered, but clearly had not—according to the book. The hunt is absorbing. I riffle through ten books to find the perfect lamb tagine recipe. An hour lost in possibilities, punctuated by a trip to the grocery store for the one gotta-have-it thing.

Today, I’m sitting here in my kitchen, surrounded by a teetering mountain of cookbooks. Piles and stacks. Some dog-eared and slightly fragrant with the evidence of careless spills and kitchen love. New ones with virgin un-cracked spines, hot (forgive the pun) off the press. Memoir cookbooks. One-subject cookbooks. Slow-Cooker and Instant Pot cookbooks. Mediterranean and Asian. Fusion and Country French. Several with great takes on old Jewish recipes which I peruse very studiously and then go back to my own tried and true. My mother’s Settlement House cookbook which is now so decrepit that I keep it in bound with a rubber band in a quart-size zip-lock bag so that the pages don’t turn to dust.

If you looked at my kitchen table you might think I was preparing for a cookbook yard sale, selecting the keepers from the here-you-take-that one. But it’s not the case. They are all mine for keeps. On occasion, I give one away. A precious gift. Always to someone with a special need for it. A cousin just graduating from college. A friend newly diagnosed with celiac. A daughter in need of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (Giving away my original copy was very hard.)

A selection of 2019’s crop of Readable Feast entries

A selection of 2019’s crop of Readable Feast entries

And yes, I do have a lot of cookbooks. Too many perhaps. It’s an obsession I’ve made it worse—or better—by co-founding a culinary book award with my friend Annie Copps. The Readable Feast is an annual regional celebration of the people who write in or about New England cuisine. Every year, a lava flow of new cookbooks. The pile mounts. Each book full of wonderfulness. (Some more than others.)

Along the way I discovered that I am not alone. Lots of people use cookbooks as a refuge. Many read them like novels and keep a handy stack by the bedside. The cookbook loving community is growing—and publishers are taking note.

In 2015 we founded our award contest, The Readable Feast, to celebrate New England’s rich stock of top-notch-yet-undervalued authors. Authors ourselves, we understood the disconnect between the effort that goes into writing a book and the financial return on the endeavor. Spoiler alert: They don’t do it for the money. Our goal is simple: We want to support these authors, help them sell a few more books.

All that has happened and more. As of this year, we have celebrated hundreds of culinary themed books with local writers. In the process, we’ve created an authentic community of the people who write the books and the people who read them. Every year our annual contest grows in numbers and stature. Most gratifying, the authors from previous years eagerly come to toast the current year’s winners. A rich community of food book lovers has formed.

People told us we wouldn’t find enough new books in print given the dire state of publishing. Wowie, were they wrong. It seems that cookbooks and all other food-centric books maintain a strong hold in the marketplace. I think I know why. Because just like me, others find reading a new cookbook a much-needed respite, an invitation to a dance that will keep them home, take them away and create a sense of well-being too often absent in our world.

Come visit us at thereadablefeast.com and see what’s in store for our June 13th awards.

Tickets to the cocktail party gala and more information here.